SummitET Subject Matter Experts interpret the emerging threat discussed in the following article.
Terrorism Monitor, Volume: 21 Issue: 5, March 10, 2023
According to Herbert Maack’s Terrorism Monitor article “Ricin’s Round Two: Germany Prevents Another Islamic State-Motivated Bioterrorism Attack,” Germany has experienced multiple ricin bomb threats in the last five years. A terrorist plot in 2018 had the capability to kill over 13,000 people but was disrupted thanks to U.S. intelligence passed to German law enforcement. This past January, German officials faced another possible ricin chemical attack. According to the media, the 2023 attack was postponed by the terrorists due to their lack of a critical toxic substance, and officials were able to intercept the suspects before loss of life occurred.
What is Ricin?
Ricin is a naturally occurring toxic substance that was discovered in 1888 by German scientist Peter Herman Steelmark. It is extracted from castor beans or from the waste materials generated during the production of castor oil, and its final form can be a white powder, mist, or pellet. Castor oil has many medicinal, industrial, and pharmaceutical uses. It’s commonly used as an additive in foods, medications, and skin care products, as well as an industrial lubricant and biodiesel fuel component. Poisoning by the ingestion of castor beans themselves is rare, as they have a hard coat which prevents the release of the ricin toxin.
Toxicity and Biological Threat
Ricin is very toxic and is a bad actor when it comes to eukaryotic cells or mammals like us, because it affects all cells. Essentially, it’s two proteins that are linked together. There’s an action chain and the AB chain, or binding chain. They’re linked together with a bond known as a Type 2 ribosome-inactivating protein (RIP). What does that mean? It means it will prevent the body’s cells from making necessary proteins. It’s a poison that impacts the structure, function, and regulation of cells it interacts with making it an incredibly lethal mechanism of killing and damaging cells when inhaled or ingested. Though it may not be all bad, scientists are actively researching ricin as a cancer therapeutic to find a way to target cancer cells with ricin.
Historically, ricin has been used much more as an assassination tool or poison rather than in terrorist attacks on large groups of people. The most famous assassination was in 1978 in London, where a Bulgarian dissident was waiting at a bus stop when he felt a pain in his leg where he noticed someone had bumped him with the tip of an umbrella. Later that night he developed a fever and irritation at the site of the injury but wasn’t aware yet of its severity. His symptoms worsened and he died at the hospital three days later. During his autopsy they found a tiny pellet that had been injected into his leg via the umbrella. The pellet was hollow and medical experts believed that it was filled with ricin.
While ricin is not a typical biological WMD that first responders face, in the early 2000s there were a number of reported incidences of white powder threats, believed to be ricin, and it does continue to be a problem. You see it on the first responder side from HAZMAT technicians for various ideations of terrorism, criminals, state sponsored programs. So, while not common, ricin as a biological weapon is definitely a threat, and it is deadly.
Symptoms and Treatment
Some initial symptoms from ricin exposure include progressive shortness of breath, irritation at the entry site, possible nausea, or vomiting. Symptoms may occur as early as 3 to 4 hours and will rapidly progress over 12 to 24 hours. The rapid progression of symptoms is what differentiates ricin poisoning from other common illnesses (colds, foodborne illness) that have similar initial ailments.
Recognizing this timeline is very important for responders, and they must coordinate and communicate well with law enforcement and confirmatory labs.
There is no antidote to ricin poisoning. If exposed, seeking medical attention immediately is paramount, as there may be measures taken to try to remove the ricin from the body or provide supportive care. Death can occur within 36 to 72 hours depending on the level and type of exposure.
A significant challenge to treating ricin poisoning is being able to quickly identify whether you’ve been exposed or not. There may be a 12 to 24 hour period before you realize you’ve been exposed and that’s where the real damage comes in. Some testing does exist at a medical facilities if they suspect ricin, but the level of uncertainty is typically high. The exposure to an unknown toxin with some vague symptoms creates a real problem for medical treatment.
Mass panic is a big concern with any type of CBRNE event. With ricin and other deadly toxins, the greater concern is loss of life. It’s important for agencies and government responders to train for bio-terrorism threats like ricin. The U.S. military does train civil support teams; Marine and Army CBRNE defense routinely train for chemical and biological toxins. These are some of the considerations when responding to a ricin terror threat:
Responders should consider the use of personal protective equipment such as respirators, suits, gloves, and eye protection. Because ricin is a toxin derived from a living organism, detection is more challenging than other chemicals.
Anyone going into the hot zone for identification, sampling, and monitoring needs to be decontaminated on the way out.
Strategic communications teams are responsible for keeping the public informed to help mitigate panic.
Typically, tips from the public is what brings in the most intel, i.e. see something, say something. Tripwires, as the FBI calls them, are also common. An example of this is where companies that sell castor beans report suspicious purchases to authorities.
The difficulty in detecting the presence of ricin means that field testing is not as reliable as confirmatory testing. Field testing often results in more false positives and you have only a 12 hour period to take and send samples to testing.
Meanwhile, you need to categorize people into definitely exposed, likely exposed, maybe exposed, or definitely not exposed. Some may need monitoring and some of the symptoms that you may observe in the initial hours could be related to the psychological component of threat exposure. It is critical for responders to be educated in the realities of ricin exposure and to understand the psychological component for the exposed individuals and their family, because there are limited treatment options.
Exercises and Training
Exercising and training this type of scenario will help to prepare response agencies, local government, or state government has for this type of event. It allows agencies to understand current knowledge, strengthen information sharing pathways, and build a cross agency plan. Consistent training will help to validate that plan to then refine it as threats emerge and evolve.
Preparedness experts like those at SummitET can assist in the process to review your plans, identify any gaps, help you revise the plan, and then exercise it. Tabletop exercises are typically done first with all agency participants in one meeting space. This includes people from Hazmat, fire, law enforcement, and the medical community. The action at the site makes all the difference in terms of limiting some of the concerns and understanding what type of decontamination and protective equipment that you need.
Knowledge is power in preparing for biological exposures and providing confidence on-site. There is no such thing as overkill in preparedness, because there’s no safe level of horizon, and preparedness is not an accident.
Law Enforcement SME and prior program manager for the FBI’s domestic WMD response
All Hazards SME and retired U.S. Marine Corps Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives (CBRNE) defense officer
Jeff Skinner, M.D.
Radiation Oncologist and Chemical, Biological, Radiological, Nuclear, and Explosives (CBRNE) SME
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